• Villanova Sports Law Blog

NFL Players Need to Gain Leverage in Contract Negotiations

Updated: Oct 17, 2018

By Thomas Dunn:

The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) must gain leverage on teams to fairly negotiate contracts when creating the next collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in 2021. Through the current CBA that was negotiated in 2011, the NFLPA secured benefits such as limited practices, an eighty-nine percent minimum spending requirement of teams’ salary caps, and more injury protection for current players along with benefits for retired players.[1]


However, players did not gain the leverage needed to fairly negotiate contracts with teams. Due to the incorporation of the rookie pay scale in the 2011 CBA, drafted rookies are not able to negotiate the salaries of their first contracts.[2] Veteran contracts are not fully guaranteed, allowing teams to release players and avoid paying out the remainder of those contracts. Teams may also opt to apply a franchise tag to a player, which bars that player from becoming an unrestricted free agent and gives the team time to either negotiate a long-term deal, or hold that player under a one-year contract.[3]


The rookie pay scale allots the salary for each draft pick, and teams are not able to exceed the designated amount. Usually signing bonus payment plans and offsets of the contract are the only aspects that are negotiated.[4] If a player is drafted in the first round, then the team has a fifth-year option on the player. This means that after the third season of the rookie contract, the team can decide to either pick up the option and retain the player or decline the option and let the player become a free agent after the fourth year.[5] Teams are not able to negotiate an extension with a player on a rookie contract until after the third year of the rookie contract.[6]

Before the rookie pay scale, rookies were allowed to negotiate contracts with teams. This led to high draft picks having leverage to negotiate or otherwise hold out. This angered veteran players, because unproven rookies were signing massive contracts that impacted the salary cap, without ever having stepped on the field. For example, the last number one overall pick in the NFL draft that was able to negotiate his rookie contract was Sam Bradford, who received a six-year, seventy-eight million dollar contract with fifty million guaranteed.[7]


Though the rookie pay scale was meant to help veterans earn more money, teams are recognizing its value, as they are no longer forced to overpay or negotiate for quality talent. In turn, veteran players with large, un-guaranteed contracts are facing cuts because but teams would rather utilize young, cheap, and healthy players. This new system has also made veteran contract negotiations more difficult because teams have little incentive to pay older players when there is a cheaper alternative in rookies.[8]


If NFL contracts were guaranteed, which they are not under the current CBA, then veterans would have job security and the ability to renegotiate their contracts instead of being released. Currently, most three- to four-year NFL contracts only have money guaranteed in the first or second year. After that point, a team will assess whether or not a player is worth the value of their contract once the money is no longer guaranteed.[9] These un-guaranteed years in contracts provide little security for players in a dangerous sport.[10]


Finally, teams can place a franchise tag on a pending free agent. The purpose of the franchise tag is to give more time for teams and players to negotiate a long-term deal. However, teams are using this designation to force players to perform under a one-year, fully-guaranteed contract and avoiding the commitment of long-term deals.[11]


The franchise tag is frustrating for players because although the contract money is guaranteed, there is no long-term security for them. The franchise tag delays free agency, which is bad for players because they cannot negotiate the one-year franchise and there is no remedy in the event of injury or a player’s stock falling.[12]


In recent years, players have begun voicing their frustrations about the franchise tag. During the 2018 offseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers hit their star running back, Le’Veon Bell, with the franchise tag for the second consecutive year. Bell responded by sitting out the beginning of the 2018 season in order to protect his body when he becomes a free agent in 2019.[13]

While holding out seems to be the only way in which a veteran can gain leverage in negotiating under the franchise tag or under an outdated deal, like Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, it is a tactic that causes resentment towards players. Le’Veon Bell has been lambasted in the media for his holdout by teammates, fans, and the Steelers organization.[14] Some speculate that the holdout could harm his future value on the free-agency market.


The true issue in these scenarios is that NFL players cannot fairly negotiate with teams. Rookies cannot negotiate their first contract. Veterans are cut for younger rookies that make less money and are not guaranteed money from their contracts. Star players are franchise tagged and put in career limbo because they have no leverage to gain free agency. The only tool that players have is to hold out, which ultimately pits the team and fan base against those players and can damage reputations.


When the new CBA is negotiated 2021, the NFL Players Association must make a push for guaranteed contracts for all players, including rookies, and limit the franchise tag so that a player may not be franchise tagged multiple times, as was the case with Le’Veon Bell. It is probable that the struggle to receive these benefits will lead to another lockout, which last happened in 2011. While the NFLPA might not receive every demand, progress towards these proposed solutions would provide more financial security for NFL players, and give the players more leverage in contract negotiations.



[1] Rishe, Patrick, Who won the 2011 NFL Lockout?, Forbes (Jul. 21, 2011), https://www.forbes.com/sites/sportsmoney/2011/07/21/who-won-the-2011-nfl-lockout/#399f5ff07071.

[2] Id.

[3] Bonesteel, Matt, It’s NFL franchise tag season. What exactly does that mean?, The Washington Post (Feb. 15, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2016/02/15/nfl-franchise-tag-rules-and-the-top-candidates-to-be-tagged-in-2016/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.fbb43cc1742d.

[4] Corry, Joel, Agent’s Take: Here’s a close look at the contracts first-round picks are expected to sign, CBS Sports (May 1, 2018), https://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/agents-take-heres-a-close-look-at-the-contracts-first-round-picks-are-expected-to-sign/

[5] Belzer, Jason, 2018 NFL Draft First-Round Rookie Salary Projections: What Mayfield, Barkley, and Darnold Will Make, Forbes (Apr. 27 2018), https://www.forbes.com/sites/jasonbelzer/2018/04/27/2018-nfl-draft-1st-round-rookie-salary-projections-what-mayfield-barkley-and-darnold-will-make/#50418a4b4581

[6] Volin, Ben, NFL owners destroyed players in CBA Negotiations, Boston Globe (July 21, 2013), https://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/2013/07/20/nfl-owners-destroyed-players-cba-negotiations/ia3c1ydpS16H5FhFEiviHP/story.html

[7] Corry, Joel, Agent’s Take: Here’s a close look at the contracts first-round picks are expected to sign, CBS Sports (May 1, 2018), https://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/agents-take-heres-a-close-look-at-the-contracts-first-round-picks-are-expected-to-sign/

[8] Volin, Ben, NFL owners destroyed players in CBA Negotiations, Boston Globe (July 21, 2013), https://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/2013/07/20/nfl-owners-destroyed-players-cba-negotiations/ia3c1ydpS16H5FhFEiviHP/story.html

[9] Sando, Mike, How do contracts work? Glad you asked, ESPN (Mar. 7, 2013), http://www.espn.com/blog/nflnation/post/_/id/73449/how-do-contracts-work-glad-you-asked

[10] Frank, Vincent, NFL Players Call for Guaranteed Contracts as Potential Work Stoppage Loom, Forbes.com, Forbes (Jul. 5, 2018), https://www.forbes.com/sites/vincentfrank/2018/07/05/nfl-players-call-for-guaranteed-contracts-as-potential-work-stoppage-looms/#2e019c4e2b76

[11] Bonesteel, Matt, It’s NFL franchise tag season. What exactly does that mean?, The Washington Post (Feb. 15, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2016/02/15/nfl-franchise-tag-rules-and-the-top-candidates-to-be-tagged-in-2016/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.fbb43cc1742d.

[12] Id.

[13] Fowler, Jeremy, Le’Veon Bell’s agent – Pittsburgh Steelers RB to protect long-term value, ESPN (Sep. 6, 2018), http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/24587466/leveon-bell-agent-pittsburgh-steelers-rb-protect-long-term-value

[14] Id.